In the Sheds: Not a level playing field

One of the great things about footy is that every ground is different. Unlike soccer and rugby pitches, which are uniform in dimension, footy grounds can be as big as the sky or as small as a pie, with straight wings or bulbous wings or a kink in one pocket. Another factor that sets grounds apart is slope — and in Bonnie Doon, near Mansfield, they had a beauty. The ground at Bonnie Doon dropped 6.5 metres from one end to the other; if you drew a straight line from the base of the goalposts at the top end, it would hit the hit the tip of goalposts at the bottom end. In the 1980s, Bonnie Doon players such as Glenn Arndt would take a few steps out of the centre circle and shoot at goal. According to Arndt, the problem with kicking downhill was that the ball often became trapped in congestion deep in attack. Bonnie Doon actually preferred to kick uphill. “There was more space in the forward line,” he said.

JUST as Carlton’s Princes Park looks like a Doctor Who set without the Heatley Stand, Bonnie Doon’s ground also has a different look and feel because of summer renovations. Almost 100 volunteers and several earth-moving companies chipped in to shift 35,000 cubic metres of dirt. In the process, a ground that was 130 metres long and 110 metres wide was increased to 160 x 130 metres. (The MCG is 157 x 139.) And, for better or worse, it was flattened. Alan Fox of the ground’s planning committee said Bonnie Doon people had no regrets about losing their distinctive slope. “Everyone thinks it’s fantastic,” he said. Even suggestion that the Bulldogs (why not the Doonas?) had been silly to get rid of the main element of their home-ground advantage was given short shrift. Benalla and District league grand finals are played at the Benalla Showgrounds oval, which is big and flat. Bonnie Doon sometimes came unstuck in grand finals because they were playing in unfamiliar conditions. On Saturday the Bulldogs revelled on their new, big, flat surface when they defeated Swanpool by six goals to extend their winning steak to 23 games.

THE footy ground at Alvie, just out of Colac, has also had relatively recent renovations. According to Alvie president Damian Fleming, a bore was sunk to give access to regular water and the clubrooms were spiffed up a bit. But when asked whether any thought was given to flattening out the slope, which is 3.6 metres from goal to goal, Fleming was aghast. “Why would we do that?” he said. Alvie has always been a strong club in the Colac and District league, in part because it draws from a close-knit community of dairy farmers, but also because it knows how to play its ground. Like Bonnie Doon, Alvie teams prefer to kick uphill. The theory is that you overcook your passes when you’re kicking downhill. Those who learned their skills on Alvie’s sloping fortress include former Geelong forward Paul Lynch, whose hamstrings had tremendous problems with the flat surfaces of the AFL.

WHILE Alvie people love their ground, others are not so impressed. Gordon Fode played 50 games for St Kilda before joining a mate at the Lorne footy club in 1997. When Lorne was drawn to play at Alvie, Fode drove into the ground, had a bit of a gander and — so the story goes — drove straight back out again. In the Sheds yesterday rang Fode at the Enoteca Sileno food and wine importing company in Carlton to check out the story. Fode, the beer and wines sales manager for the western Victorian region (of all places), remembered that he found the sight of a hard ground with livestock nibbling at its edge to be unappealing. “It was pretty much a cow paddock,” he said. But he fudged his reply when asked whether he thought better of playing at Alvie. “Mate, it was a long way from the AFL,” was all he’d say.

WHEN you see this picture of the Alvie footy ground, which was taken last week from the top goals looking down, it’s hard to imagine a more idyllic ground. Alvie games-record holder Tim McCarthy (he played just downhill of 300) admitted the oval was a bit scrubby before the bore was sunk. He also said the ground itself never won Alvie any games. A fortnight ago, the Swans set up their season when they defeated fellow top side Lorne at Lorne. (Now there’s a distinctive ground; what a view!) On Saturday Alvie returned home to host South Colac and took it for granted that their winning fortunes would continue. Instead South Colac won by nine points, inflicting on Alvie its first defeat of the season. “We got tipped over,” said McCarthy. “But that’s footy, isn’t it?”

FOR the first half of this century, the Maldon footy ground had a drop of seven metres. In the 1950s, volunteers spent a year digging into the side of Mount Tarrengower to try to level off their ground, only to strike impenetrable rock about halfway through their excavations. The goal-to-goal slope at Maldon since then has been three metres. The ground is long enough (147 metres) but with a width of only 84 metres it looks like it’s been squeezed at the sides and pushed down towards the botanical gardens. The ground is also distinctive in that it’s the only one in Australia to feature a courthouse At Maldon’s most recent game at home in the Maryborough Castlemaine league, against Dunolly a fortnight ago, the Bombers rattled home with the slope in the last quarter by kicking six goals to one—and fell short of victory by a point.

OTHER Victorian grounds with sizeable slopes include King Valley, Corryong, Monbulk and Seville. The ground at Seville, in the Dandenong Ranges, has such unusual contours that it’s known as the Potato Chip, while the disused ground at Glen Alvie in South Gippsland is believed to have a slope bigger than the original gradient at Maldon.

This article first appeared in The Age on 27 May 2009

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